The Government was forced back on the defensive last night, as the turbulent week it faces between now and next Monday's debate on the Scott report was complicated by moves to prevent the Bolton Tory MP, Sir Peter Thurnham, from carrying out his threat to resign the party whip.
John Major has agreed to see Sir Peter after concerns that the senior backbencher may be contemplating defecting to the Liberal Democrats.
Labour was last night drawing up plans to keep up pressure on Sir Nicholas and William Waldegrave, the Chief Secretary, to resign. The Attorney General will be questioned in the Commons today by the Labour MPs Peter Hain and David Winnick over the criticisms of his handling of the Matrix Churchill prosecutions.
Two other Tory backbenchers, Rupert Allason and Richard Shepherd, indicated they had grave doubts over the Government's handling of the Scott report. There were signs that others had not made up their mind to support the Government next Monday.
Although Sir Peter's discontent predates publication of the Scott report, he publicly voiced concerns during the weekend and may vote against the Government next week. Ulster Unionists will meet on Wednesday to decide whether to oppose the Government in the debate.
Liberal Democrat sources confirmed Sir Peter had held two discussions with Archie Kirkwood, the party's chief whip, at Mr Kirkwood's instigation. They confirmed he had twice had dinner with Paddy Ashdown, the party leader, but that these occasions had been social. Mr Ashdown's daughter works with Sir Peter's in France.
Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, said on BBC TV's On the Record yesterday, when asked what advice he had for Sir Peter: "Don't do it." He added: "I think it is fair to observe the worries that he has did not arise from the Scott report." Mr Heseltine said he did not want to communicate over the airwaves with a senior backbencher like Sir Peter who was passed over for the Westmoreland Tory parliamentary nomination. He added: "We have known of his worries for some time and I think they are rather different."
Mr Shepherd yesterday expressed strong reservations about the defence offered by Mr Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas over the charges that they had misled Parliament and failed to pass on concerns by Mr Heseltine over the use of Public interest Immunity Certificates in the Matrix churchill trial.
"It is not enough to hang your defence on a couple of rather friendly phrases when the burden of the report presents a very, very dismal picture," Mr Shepherd said.
"One always hopes in our system that honourable men do what is the constitutionally appropriate thing.
"William Waldegrave is a much-liked member of our party and Nick Lyell is a very proper person but that's not a defence in terms of parliamentary accountability and they should reflect on that."
Mr Allason said of the sections of the report dealing with Matrix Churchill: "The more I read of it the more I am dismayed."
In a series of Labour attempts to exploit the row over the Scott report, Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, wrote to Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, complaining about the involvement of civil servants in the Government propaganda operation in the wake of publication of the Scott report last Thursday.
Peter Mandelson, the Shadow minister for the civil service, wrote to Sir Richard Scott complaining that David Willetts, a Parliamentary Under Secretary under Mr Heseltine, had been given an advance copy to help prepare the Government's defence after publication.
At the same time Gerald Kaufman, Labour chairman of the Heritage Select Committee, wrote to John Birt, Director General of the BBC, complaining about news coverage of the report last Thursday and reports that Jonathan Haslam, the Downing Street press secretary, secured more favourable coverage in the 9pm news than in the 6pm news by telephoning the corporation.
An opinion poll in the Sunday Times showed more than 60 per cent of electors thought the Mr Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas should resign.
Peter Kemp, page 13
Leading article, page 14